The Subject

The subject has been understood, since the decline of the stratified society and the emergence of functional differentiation, as the observer, or an entity that looks out at the world and processes sensory impressions. Thus, we have the subject as the observer and the object as the observed. But the subject also observes itself. It observes something called I, me, and myself.

[N]ot until the end of the eighteenth century was man understood to be a subject in the strict sense, and thereby unlinked from nature. . .

Under the heading of “subject,” the modern individual conceives himself as an observer of his observing, which always operated with self-reference and reference to others; thus he understands himself as a second-order observer. . . .

The effects of this semantics of the subject were enormous. One consequence, for example, was that a concept of an opposite, relative to the subject, had to be invented. This was called Umwelt, and then later “environment,” environnement. Before this time there was no environment. Instead the world was understood as the totality of things or as the support . . . of all their particulars.

(Luhmann, Social Systems, xxxix)

But this concept of the subject was just a stopgap measure, according to Luhmann; it was a way to make sense of the catastrophe of functional differentiation, which stripped away family-based or strata-based identity. Modern society became the society of subjects with rights. This idea provided  a tentative description of a society in transition from stratification to functional differentiation.

There is a problem though.

Because  every subject conceives of itself as the condition for the constitution of all the others, those others could be subjects, but not real, so to speak, subjective subjects. From the perspective of each subject, every other one possesses merely a derivative, constituted, constructed existence. How could people have overlooked this for so long?

. . . There can be no “intersubjectivity” on the basis of the subject. . . . Consciousness experiences itself as reference to phenomena. It is, in the same moment, knowledge of itself and grasp of phenomena in one, noesis and noema, and therefore, in precisely this sense, intentionality in its fundamental mode of operation. Ever since people have continually fiddled with the famous “problem of  reference” without anyone noticing that, after Husserl, the problem must be posed differently–namely as the problem of the operative processing of the difference between self-reference and reference to others. (xl-xli)

Action theory fits the outmoded idea of the subject.

The action theory preferred by contemporary sociologists is sustained by the corpus mysticum of the subject. (xliv)

Autopoietic systems operatively process the difference between self-reference and other-reference.


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